5 Leadership Lessons From a Hollywood Pope
Now that we’ve had a little time to get used to the idea of a new pope, I thought a (short!) quiz might be in order:
1. Practices humility: Which pope removes his tiara at his papal coronation, indicating that he wants to distribute the church’s riches to the world’s poor?
2. Values experience more than dogma: Which pope took to the streets to meet real people rather than wrap himself in the comforting cloak of belief?
3. Appreciates core values: Which pope, while being a revolutionary in many ways, firmly believed in the basic tenets of his religion?
4. Takes risk on behalf of core values: Though on uncertain ground, and with lives hanging in the balance, which pope fought for the church above all else?
5. Models through behavior: Which pope led by setting examples, rather than by taking the lectern?
The answer is the fictitious Pope Kiril, played by Anthony Quinn in the film The Shoes of a Fisherman.
In my teaching, I often draw on films to highlight leadership lessons. The Shoes of a Fisherman is one of my favorite movies, based on my favorite book by Morris West. It’s a majestic Hollywood drama telling the story of a Russian Catholic priest who is imprisoned for his beliefs and goes on to become the first non-Italian pope. And the film illustrates many leadership experiences that are applicable entrepreneurs.
In the film, Pope Kiril is plagued by uncertainty, doubt, and pressing geopolitical questions. He struggles with his role not only because he spent 15 years of his life as a prisoner in Siberia, but because of the different political bodies begging his conscience for support.
Like the present pope, he is humbled by his election. Kiril anticipates the current pope (who told the cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”) when he told a supporter, “I hope you realize what you’ve done.”
Like the present pope, he understands the role of core values and the need to return to basics. Like the present pope, he demonstrates the need for the church to take risks on behalf of the poor.
The new pope, Francis I, has struck some as a beguiling figure. He cooks his own meals. He has a favorite soccer team. He doesn’t put much stock in expensive clothes. And he prefers public transportation, perhaps putting an end to the days of the Popemobile.
Francis I won’t wear a new papal ring, but, to cut down on expenses, will instead adopt a hand-me-down. It’s a small act, but it sends a transformative message, just like Pope Kiril’s doffing of his tiara. Francis I isn’t reporting to work to enjoy the luxuries of his new office. Instead, he hints that he wants to get to work and focus, in part, on problems of poverty.
Francis I chose his appellation after St. Francis, who wanted “a poor church.” It’s a fitting title for Francis I’s character, mindset, and goals. He too wants a church, “that is poor and is for the poor.”
Then there’s the matter of Francis I’s personality. Gone is the stuffy, cold, distance of Benedict XVI. In its place is a rather easygoing character that doesn’t read drily from notes, but charms a crowd with anecdotes and welcomes the opportunity to converse with the public. Francis I even tells jokes, bringing long-absent levity and humor into the Vatican’s city walls.
Leaders can learn a lot from how Francis I took office. He didn’t stomp in, hammer out an agenda, and demand action. Instead, he subtly signaled to people that he had a different, worldview.
By forgoing the pomp of his position he signals to the world, without uttering a word, that he means to cut back and refocus on the Church’s charitable goals.
He comes off as a back-to-basics leader who believes that he is merely a servant to God rather than God’s man on earth. Like Pope Kiril, Francis I is happy to walk among the crowds and be with the people rather than assume an elevated, aloof position.
In a world of high-tech hubris, start-up aspirations, self-absorbed CEO’s and overreaching entrepreneurs, both Anthony Quinn’s Pope Kiril and Francis I teach us some core leadership lessons appropriate for any season.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.